Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Starring Ron Perlman, Selma Blair, Doug Jones, Luke Goss

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Rated PG-13

Now how does this happen?

The first Hellboy movie was crazy mad insane, like you couldn’t even figure out what the frak was going on, but it didn’t matter. It was wildly entertaining in its geeked-out glory.

And now Hellboy II: The Golden Army is just kinda there, like it has accepted its insanity and douses itself with a big handful of lithium every six hours, and is feeling much better now, honestly, and don’t forget to buy the Hellboy Happy Meal on your way home.

I’m still thinking, four years later, about how wacky Hellboy was, and yet I can barely remember Hellboy II, and I saw that mere days ago. I want to say that Hellboy II is pure dumb popcorn fun while you’re watching it and instantly forgettable the moment the credits start to roll, but actually, I was forgetting it while I was still in the process of watching it.

That could be the problem: watching Hellboy II is a process. It feels like it’s been tamed and corralled and commodified. Hellboy was rowdy and feral and dangerous, and already, in only its second outing, the franchise has been herded into the slaughterhouse and ground up in chuck chop and wrapped in sanitary plastic.

Not that Hellboy II is actually bad, per se, it’s just so, well, ordinary. Here is a movie about a huge red horned devil dude who loves cats and television and junk food — and he’s played by Ron Perlman, who’s all kinds of cool — and they made him kinda boring. Here is master fantasist filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Mimic), who wrote and directed this and gives us an urban troll market — it’s hidden under the Brooklyn Bridge! — and warrior elves in the subway, and it all feels like something that’s about to get slapped on a T-shirt and sold at Target for $19.95. Imagine trying to take what’s astonishing and nightmare-inducing about Pan’s Labyrinth and boiling it down into something you could navigate in a video game — you can’t do it.

Del Toro teases us right as the film opens, with a child’s reverie of puppet warfare, a fantasy brought on by televisions of Howdy Doody meeting bedtime stories about an ancient war between elves and humans and a long-forgotten truce and a dormant army of golden robots … and the child who dreams this is actually Hellboy as a kid, and you think right there: This is gonna be as outrageous and audacious as that first movie.

But all daring is tossed aside when we join Hellboy today, and are treated to a checklist of comic-book-action clichés: the bickering with the girlfriend (Selma Blair), who’s really hot: no, seriously, she can light herself on fire; the comical despair of the non-superpowered boss who can’t control Hellboy (Jeffrey Tambor); the sidekicky sidekickery of Hellboy’s fish-man pal (Doug Jones), who for some reason halfway through the film abandons the breathing apparatus that lets him walk around in the air yet still keeps walking around in the air without suffocating. They’re battling an evil elf prince (Luke Goss), who wants war with the humans because we paved paradise and put up a parking lot, and if he has to raise the Golden Army to do it, then by all the ancient gods, he will, just try and stop him.

It appears to be promising us a good ol’ rampage of the entire Earth, and instead, we get something disappointingly local and very anticlimactic. How could it be that the truly gross and horrific little tooth fairies from early in the film are actually scarier than the creatures that get their names in the title? That really feels like a cheat.